By Samuel P. Medenilla & Rene Acosta
SECURITY concerns and the lower stakes in the second part of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite on Wednesday might lead to a lower voter turnout, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said.
At a news conference on Monday, the poll body said it is now closely monitoring the situation in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato for possible security threats, which could affect the plebiscite.
Last month, three separate explosions in the provinces of Sulu, Zamboanga City and North Cotabato led to several casualties.
Government military forces are also currently engaged with Abu Sayaff bandits in Patikul, Sulu.
“So far, the biggest concern coming into the [BOL plebiscite] elections is that there’ll be a spill- over of the violence from other parts of Mindanao to the plebiscite areas,” Comelec Spokesman James B. Jimenez said.
THE Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), meanwhile, recalibrated their security plans on Tuesday for today’s (Wednesday) last phase of the plebiscite for the BOL, which will be held this time in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte.
Police and military officials are expecting that the plebiscite in the two provinces will go smoothly as they have adopted the security template that they have earlier implemented during the first phase of the BOL’s ratification in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Still, PNP Spokesman Senior Supt. Bernard Banac said that the government is not taking chances by further recalibrating its security protocols for the final phase of the voting and was making adjustments as it see it.
On Sunday, PNP chief Director General Oscar Albayalde and other police officials inspected the PNP’s final deployment of its forces in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte where a final briefing was also held with the Comelec and military officials.
“[Albayalde] will also visit some voting centers tomorrow to ensure that the plebiscite will run smoothly, and safely,” said Banac, adding all regional directors of neighboring Police Regional Offices have been directed to provide strong border controls and checkpoints to ensure that no spoilers from other areas will disrupt the plebiscite.
In Lanao del Norte, Capt. Clint Antipala, spokesman of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, said that soldiers have also been ready for the plebiscite following the beefing up and deployment of two brigade-size forces in the province.
“We were hoping to have a peaceful and orderly plebiscite, and we are asking the residents of the provinces to respect each other, give each other the chance to vote and respect their wishes,” he said.
While the first phase of the plebiscite in the ARMM and in Sulu have been peaceful as government officials claimed, twin bombings, however, rocked Sulu in its aftermath, claiming the lives of 23 people and more than 90 others.
Officials however said that the “suicide bombings” at the Jolo cathedral that were believed to be carried out by an Indonesian couple were not in any way connected to the BOL, but a plain terrorism.
Sulu rejected its proposed inclusion into the coverage of the BOL with an overwhelming vote during the plebiscite.
Preparing for the worst
AS of Tuesday, the Comelec said the PNP has yet to inform them of any new “hot spots” in Mindanao.
Jimenez, however, said they preparing for the possibility of any security concern, which would compel some of the teachers, who are supposed to volunteer as Plebiscite Committee (Plebcom), from doing their election duties.
To recall, in the first part of the BOL plebiscite on January 21, some teachers in Cotabato City refused to serve as members of the Plebcom after allegedly being threatened by the members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
He said they already coordinated with the local government units in the Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato in preparing possible alternates for Plebcom members.
“We have also trained elements of the PNP [to serve as Plebcom members] just for extreme cases when we can no longer get [any other volunteers],” Jimenez said.
ANOTHER factor, Jimenez said, which could affect voter turnout is the less controversial topic for the second plebiscite.
He explained since the more “polarizing” issues of the ratification of the BOL had already been decided upon on January 21, and that there could be a lower degree interest from voters.
During the second plebiscite, concerned voters will be just deciding if they want their areas to be included in the soon to be created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
“It is less of an emotional issue and more of a practical issue for the people on the ground…. A little less triggering for a lot of people. So we hope cooler heads will be in place, and we could avoid tension like [what transpired] in Cotabato City,” Jimenez said.
The Comelec issued a projected voter turnout of just 70 percent, for the second part of the plebiscite—slightly lower than its 75- percent voter turnout target in the first plebiscite.
“Stakes are a little different, no longer ratification, its just inclusion, I don’t know If it will necessarily generate the same level of interest,” Jimenez said.
He said they still hope the voter turnout in the second plebiscite will go beyond their expectation just it did with the first plebiscite, where they registered a 85 percent turnout.
A total of 639,361 voters are expected to participate in the second round of the BOL plebiscite today, Wednesday.
The Comelec expects to complete its canvassing and declare the outcome of the second plebiscite four days after it is held.
It will cover the towns of Baloi, Munai, Nunungan, Pantar, Tagoloan and Tangkal in Lanao del Norte.
For North Cotabato, it will include the 67 barangays in the municipalities of Aleosan, Carmen, Kabacan, Midsayap, Pigkawayan, Pikit and Tulunan.
This is a smaller coverage compared to the first plebiscite, which was conducted in the entire ARMM, Cotabato City and Isabela City of Basilan.